Queen Latifah was born to play the Empress of the Blues. She plays the title role in “Bessie,” a film about the early life of legendary blues singer Bessie Smith which premieres on HBO Saturday, May 16, and also stars Mo’Nique as Ma Rainey.
Directed by Dee Rees (“Pariah”) from a screenplay by Rees, Christopher Cleveland and Bettina Gilois, the story is by Rees and acclaimed playwright Horton Foote, who died in 2009. The film centers on Smith’s early years as she struggled as a young singer to eventually become one of the most successful recording artists of the 1920’s. She earned $2000 a week – an unheard of sum – at the height of her career.
The film also focuses on the relationship between Smith and Ma Rainey, who mentored Smith and gave her guidance on developing her stagecraft. Mo’Nique portrays Ma Rainey, known as the “Mother of the Blues,” in a rich and layered performance with so much charisma and warmth we’re reminded of why she won the Oscar a few years back for Lee Daniels’ “Precious.”
Both Queen Latifah and Mo’Nique received Critics Choice nominations the other day, and the Golden Globes and other accolades are sure to follow.
The cast includes Michael Kenneth Williams (“Boardwalk Empire,” “12 Years a Slave”) as Bessie’s husband; Khandi Alexander (“Scandal”) as Bessie’s abusive older sister, Viola; Mike Epps (“The Hangover”) as the singer’s bootlegger romantic interest; Tory Kittles (“True Detective”) as Bessie’s older brother Clarence; and Tika Sumpter as Lucille, Bessie’s longtime lover.
At the recent premiere at the Museum of Modern Art, nobody worked the red carpet harder than Mo’Nique who talked to all the journalists clamoring for her attention. (On the carpet, Queen Latifah spoke only to the television journalists.)
“Bessie” has some explicit sex scenes, and Queen Latifah’s character has a nude scene that’s integral to the story but sure to get audiences talking. Ma Rainey was gay and Bessie Smith was bisexual, and the film doesn’t shy away from showing scenes of their characters having sex with both men and women. A standout is a scene early in the film where Mo’Nique and Queen Latifah dress up in drag, smoke cigars and do a song together to a boisterous audience.
Here’s a red carpet interview with Mo’Nique, who looked terrific in a blue lace gown, and was warm and thoughtful in her replies to all the journalists:
Were gay women who performed on stage more open about their sexuality in the time of Ma Rainey and Bessie Smith? (Of course, they didn’t have to contend with social media.):
Mo’Nique: I think back then there was a strength that said I’m unwavering about who I was born to be. Don’t we still fight with it today? But figure what she had to walk through then … It was illegal. They got locked up if you were seen with the same sex, so to have that kind of strength back then is absolutely beautiful.
What was the key to finding her character?
Her music, (I found it) through her music. If you listen to Ma Rainey, you’ll really understand Ma Rainey because she sang from her soul. She sung her truth, and that’s how I really got to understand who that woman was because there’s really very little written information about her. She’s so hidden and now you have to dig really deep to get that little bit…. And she told the truth. Even back then, she was fighting for wage equality, so we’re still having that fight today, but definitely she kicked open the doors so we can even go to the meetings to have those discussions.
They were friends. She was Bessie Smith’s mentor and she was very motherly, but she was that type of mother that knew when she had to let go and let that baby fly and go see it for herself. And when the bird flew back home, she was right there waiting for her. That’s what that relationship was. And what I so appreciate about her, we don’t often times see those relationships anymore, you don’t see it where two friends go through it, they fall out, but they’re still willing to love each other through it and come back together.
What do you see as Ma Rainey’s influence on A&R and jazz?
It’s truthful. It’s very honest. It’s very from the soul. When you listen to those singers back then, they couldn’t pretend. They couldn’t fake it because the people would know it. They were those singers that when you sat there, you know how they say music moves you? That was that type of music that moved you and made you make a decision, may it be the right, wrong or indifferent, but when you listen to that music it was like you know what? Okay, ‘I’m gonna finish this darn liquor and I’m gonna make a change.’ That’s what that music was back then. Absolutely beautiful!
Why did you want this part?
It was Ma Rainey’s strength. Her integrity. You know when you read that script and you understand that the sacrifices that woman made for little girls like us, and she had no idea that she was doing it, it was just the right thing to do. So when you read those lines, and you understand that that woman is talking to me for me, off the pages, and she’s saying, ‘Mo’Nique, keep pushing. Keep going in the right direction and don’t waiver from what you know is right.’ Look at my story and when you look at that woman’s story, it’s not like most of our stories, where we die broke, alone, miserable. When you look at her story, she had a very full life.
Before she made her way into the theater, I asked Mo’Nique if she actually sang.
All day long! (She laughed)